By Natural Philosopher Mike Prestwood

When did ancient humans start wearing clothes?

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Clothes < Civilization < Prehistory < History

When did proto-clothes start?

While the evidence we have for wide-use of clothing only dates back to about 170,000 years ago, most scholars think clothing started as early as 500,000 to 1 million years ago, with perhaps proto-clothing starting even earlier. For sure there was wide-use of clothing by the time early humans first migrated out of Africa into colder climates. The first clothes were likely simple animal hides, furs, and perhaps woven fibers. The most likely ancient human to first don clothing is Homo erectus, but it’s possible even earlier hominins occasionally wore a loincloth or something like a shoulder wrap.

The more solid evidence we have comes from discoveries and genetic analyses. For instance, the discovery of bone needles dating back to 40,000 years ago, means that early humans were making tailored clothing. Moreover, genetic studies of clothing lice indicate that humans began wearing clothes well before 170,000 years ago, as this is when lice evolved to live in clothing separate from head lice, and had time to spread widely enough to show up in the archaeological record.

What About Shoes?

We think shoes must have been used in cold climates for at least 100,000 years, but the evidence and speculation are slim. Before that, it’s very possible that tool-making humans, as early as 1.76 million years ago, used simple techniques for foot protection. Perhaps they rubbed mud on their feet and stepped on leaves for temporary relief on hot ground. After all, other primates today do this. The likely first shoes were things like long fibers, like grass, wrapped around feet.

Visit our timeline for more insights into the making of a sophisticated person, take the deep dive: March to Civilization: Societal Touchstones.

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